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New York Bill Aims to Help Wrongfully Convicted

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A nationwide push by prosecutors and law enforcement to re-examine possible wrongful convictions has led to a record number of exonerations. Now, new legislation could make it easier for those who have been wrongfully convicted in New York State to seek damages.

Speaking during a breakfast at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he’s pushing forward on a bill to revise a state law allowing people who’ve been unjustly convicted, imprisoned and had their convictions overturned to sue for damages.

“Those who are wrongfully convicted and unjustly deprived of liberty must be allowed to seek compensation from the state, to help put their lives back together again,” Schneiderman said in a press release. “The legal reforms we are proposing today are critically important not just to the futures of the people wrongfully convicted by our criminal justice system, but to our future as a just society.”

As it stands, the “New York State Court of Claims Act” can prevent certain people, including those who have falsely confessed or plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, from recovering damages after having been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. That means people who confessed to a crime because they were in fear of their lives, shaken down during an interrogation or unclear about their actions or rights are denied the right to sue.

The bill Schneiderman is proposing would amend the law so that anyone who falsely confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime they did not commit may still be eligible to sue for damages.

Other provisions in the proposed bill would allow a person to resubmit a claim after failing to verify it and expand the grounds for a lawsuit to include cases dismissed after a violation of constitutional rights or the introduction of post-conviction DNA evidence proving a person’s innocence.

It would also extend the statute of limitations to file a claim for damages by a year.

According to the Innocence Project (a nonprofit that helps exonerate the wrongfully convicted and prevent future cases), 27 people have had their convictions reversed because of DNA evidence in New York. At least 10 of those 27 people had also made false incriminating statements or pleaded guilty.

The legislation could also have a huge impact on minority communities.

The organization finds that minorities make up about 70 percent of those proven innocent through DNA testing. African Americans represent the vast majority of these exonerations with 63 percent exonerated through DNA testing.

“The Unjust Imprisonment Act would fix wrongs that currently exist in the law by removing unjust and unnecessary burdens on those who have been locked up for a crime they did not commit,” Schneiderman said.

A report released earlier this month by the National Registry of Exonerations finds that 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year. That’s up by four in 2009.

The joint study by the Northwestern University and the University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 cases in the U.S. since 1989 and another 1,100 “group exonerations” involving police misconduct mostly related to planted drug and gun evidence.

About Nia Hamm

Nia Hamm

Nia Hamm is a full time producer in the Digital News department of CNBC News. She is also a freelance writer and has been published on various websites including CNBC.com, thegrio.com and Ebony.com. She covers various topics including, business news, health, well-being and feature stories. Nia can be followed on Twitter at @niaahamm.